An Oakland, CA, native who passed away in November 2019 at the age of 100 was once involved in a World War II flight that may have inspired the song “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”
J.C. O’Donnell ’48 was a 22-year-old Army lieutenant when he flew a twin-engine warplane, a B-26 Marauder, in an intense dogfight in New Guinea on May 28, 1942.
He ended up flying the plane on one engine for four hours, arriving late back to the airstrip at Port Moresby.
News accounts stated that several planes flew over the mountains in New Guinea, and the Americans ended up under attack by more than a dozen Japanese Zero fighter planes.
The battle lasted 35 minutes, and the Marauder’s right engine was destroyed in machine gun fire. The tail was also hit and the fuselage acquired large holes.
O’Donnell took a long route home and was chased by the Japanese planes for about an hour. By the time he got the plane and his crew of six back to the airstrip, it had been declared missing.
In a newspaper article in 2004, O’Donnell reported that when he landed the plane, it hit the runway at 120 mph and blew out a tire. It then left the runway and struck another plane before coming back to the strip.
Gene Autry dramatized this flight on a radio program on Aug. 30, 1942.
While looking through boxes of documents, letters, books and photos after his death, O’Donnell’s son, John Jr., and his wife, Margaret, found an original copy of the script from that show.
“Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” was recorded by the Song Spinners for Decca Records and reached number one on the Billboard pop chart on July 2, 1943. The lyrics were by Harold Adamson and the music by Jimmy McHugh.
“As far as we know, his flight … may have been one of the inspirations for that song,” said Margaret O’Donnell. “That information … was known as fact by John Jr. all his life, and he is 72 years old now. I’ve Googled the song and found various other flights and pilots are credited. It may have been based on a composite of different incidents. But, in listening to the song, it also accurately describes J.C.’s flight.”
O’Donnell said she doesn’t know how her father-in-law felt about the song, and for her to say so would make an assumption.
“J.C. was never a braggart,” she said. “One of the planes involved in that mission didn’t make it back; all aboard were lost. He would have been keenly aware of his good fortune that day.”
She said that even in his later years, J.C. never panicked in an emergency, which is no doubt why he survived and brought his crew back.
“”hat was a trait we noted throughout the years,” she said. “He quietly, thoughtfully weighed all options; he thought things through. He was judicious in his processes and always fair.”
O’Donnell was born in Oakland on June 8, 1919, to Ed and Frances O’Donnell. He graduated from Oakland High School in 1937.
“After graduation, he went off to college, but connections to family in Oakland and Loch Lynn were always strong, and visits were long and often if possible,” O’Donnell said.
He attended the University of Maryland and was a student at Antioch College when he joined the Air Corps.
“When he interrupted college to enter the military, he had been planning to study law,” O’Donnell said. “But with war on the horizon, he opted to join up early and fight.”
After the war, he finished his degree in business administration from Antioch College. He had numerous assignments, including time in the operations section in the Pentagon, as an advisor to the Chilean Air Force and commander of the primary flying school in Hondo, Texas.
He received a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University in 1962, and his last assignment was as Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel at Dobbins AFB in Marietta, GA.
His official retirement date from the USAF was Jan. 31, 1970.
After that, he taught ROTC at a local high school, then finished his law degree in 1979 and practiced law until the mid 1990s.
“After USAF retirement, he still loved to fly, and for a number of years he and John Jr. had a small, single-engine plane,” O’Donnell said.
She noted that he was always devoted to his wife, Colleen, and their son.
“Over his career, he had many good assignments and opportunities to rise in rank,” she said. “John Jr. has always recounted that his father would have made general if he would have taken a position at SAC (Strategic Air Command). But J.C. didn’t, because as he said ‘marriages don’t always last at SAC.’”
O’Donnell’s funeral mass was held on Nov. 7, 2019, at St. Ann Catholic Church, Marietta, GA. He is buried next to his wife at Kennesaw Memorial Park, where he received full military honors.
After his wife’s death in 2008 J.C. lived with his son and daughter-in-law. She noted that he was “always agreeable, going wherever we did, always ready to ride along.”
A stroke in 2009 was followed by a slow physical decline.
“But he never lost his dry wit or sense of humor,” O’Donnell said. “When you thought he wasn’t paying attention, he’d sometimes surprise you with just a word or a look.”
He always said he wanted to make it to 100, which he did in June.
“We had a small, but perfect celebration for him,” O’Donnell said. We had a pianist play tunes from the 1940s, along with songs like “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” and “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”
O’Donnell said J.C. loved growing up in Garrett County.
“He had a great childhood in a caring family at a time when a community still knew one another,” she said.
A story was often told of J.C. taking a flight to visit his hometown, most likely in a B-26. He apparently did not realize that the large and loud airplane would create an uproar.
“”he ‘buzzing’ of Oakland was an actual event, brought up with much laughter at many dinners over the years,” O’Donnell said.
She noted that Bill Treacy, who also grew up in Oakland, remembers the event. He recalls that J.C. was flying low, above the telephone line height, and he buzzed the eagle on the dome of the courthouse. He noted that some town folks were annoyed and took down the plane’s tail number to complain, but reporters at the paper defused the situation.
In an interesting postscript to the flight with one engine, O’Donnell reported that J.C. actually discovered the identity of the Zero pilot through a book in the 1970s.
By contacting the author and the U.S. Embassy Air Attache in Japan, he was put in touch with the pilot, Saburo Sakai. He and his wife were able to meet with him and his family in Japan.
O’Donnell noted that the family found a document titled “Commencement Address to Oakland High School, June 9, 1943 — Letter To A Hero.” It was a speech given by William A. Gunter to the graduating class.
“I read it for the first time last week,” she said. “It was eerie, reading a document, written in 1943, describe so accurately the same person I didn’t even meet until 1990. He had the same character traits throughout his life — and it was an interesting life. He enjoyed it, and we miss him.”